What makes a writer choose to fictionalise two great men, each one of whom deserves the whole novel to himself?
Alexander von Humboldt is already the subject of quite a weighty biography, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf but at the same time, he would make a marvellous subject for a novel. Carl Friedrich Gauss, the mathematical genius also might be worthy of a long novel on his own, here they are oddly coupled in a new novel by Daniel Kehlmann.
Measuring the World, which is the title of this novel, indicates roughly the ways in which these two great men made their mark on their worlds, and in this novel it is where the two meet and in what circumstances that concerns the author. This is challenging, for though roughly contemporary, their spheres of interest were widely different.
Alexander von Humboldt was an adventurer who was determined to see and experience as many new things as it was possible to imagine and, on the way, wished to measure and categorise everything. He climbed, measured, observed and theorised…today we owe to him the discovery of the zonal nature of plants, isobars, weather systems and the most remarkably accurate maps of South America.
Carl Friedrich Gauss on the other hand, stayed relentlessly at home, and was disturbed greatly by any suggestion that he would be better off somewhere else. Several passages describe the miseries endured by him and his son, Eugen travelling around Germany in uncomfortable equipages. A mathematical genius when very young; aged eight, he astonished his teacher who thought to keep the class quiet for a long period by telling them to add all the numbers from one to a hundred; Gauss completed the sum in less than three minutes – but what froze his teacher was that he had reached this conclusion by means of a system, a system that he had worked out for himself. This systemising brain continued to work brilliantly in the field of mathematics for the rest of his life.
Gauss admired Humboldt, who admired nobody; Gauss was himself admired by the royal family and this book seeks to mesh the extraordinary achievements of both men, and of their relationship, such as it was – which was reluctant on both sides.
It doesn’t quite work, but as an introduction read with a mind to go on to other, better books it is worth reading. In places it is amusing and fascinating, alluring and repelling, but it is not enough on its own.
On a different planet entirely is another recent novel which elucidates the life of a well known genius: René Descartes. Told exclusively through the life of Helena Jans, a Dutch housemaid, The Words in my Hand, brings to life seventeenth century Holland and the luckless life of a maid, one who moreover, can read and write. This in itself is remarkable. She is sent, via an agent, to work in the household of an English bookseller in Amsterdam – to make ends meet Mr Serjeant takes in paying guests. The Monsieur who comes to stay for several years, mysterious and reclusive, with his man-servant Limosin, turns out to be none other than the philosopher, Descartes – cogito, sum ego – hiding incognito while his pamphlets outrage France and the illustrious Catholics. Thoughtful and advanced in his thinking, Decartes hides, writes and fails to publish; horribly aware of the fate of Galileo, his near contemporary.
In this delightful look at his life, Guinevere Glasfurd reveals a hidden, tragic but beautiful love story between the thinker and the maid, which ultimately results in a child. Helena has to be hidden away without knowing where Descartes is, she is smuggled to Deventer where she gives birth to a girl, Francine. So fearful of discovery, not of the scandal but of the effect of his writings, Descartes does not immediately acknowledge the child, but love overcomes his fear and hidden together, they carve out something of a life.
Another book in the same vein, one that I have read many times and recommended many times more is This Thing of Darkness, the only novel by Harry Thompson. This is the astonishing and tragic tale of the life of Captain Robert FitzRoy who sailed with Charles Darwin on The Beagle, and changed forever the concept of Man’s place in the universe.
This incomparable book brings to life this haunted and difficult man, whose achievements were overshadowed by his more illustrious passenger, but who, like von Humboldt gave us systems that we use today: weather patterns and weather forecasting which he observed, noted and categorised, and he also had a hand in the creation of the Beaufort scale, it was Beaufort who made the necessary arrangements for his protégé, FitzRoy to captain the ship, Darwin only joined at the last moment when the ship’s surgeon absconded.